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The Cold War between the West, led by America, and the Communist bloc, led by the former Soviet Union, was a titanic struggle that spanned six decades. Its grinding permanence is now largely lost to the post-9/11 generation.
The Cold War was as much an economic and cultural struggle as it was a military one. In the end, the Berlin Wall, the most tangible relic of the contest between freedom and the ideology of militarized collectivism, came down without a shot being fired on November 9, 1989. Though, it is important to note, that some 200 people were killed out of 5,000 who tried to cross the wall’s “death strip” of guard towers, anti-vehicle trenches and land mines.
Prior to the Berlin Wall’s construction in one overnight burst of effort in 1961, some 3.5 million Germans defected from Communist-controlled East Germany to the free West, many of whom did so in Berlin, which was then a city divided and occupied by the victorious WWII Allied powers of the U.S., the U.K., France and the Soviet Union.
Rockin’ the Wall tells the story of music’s role in the Berlin Wall’s collapse; rock-n-roll music, to be precise.
In the West, especially among the older elites, rock music was often viewed as decadent and rebellious. So it was as well in the Communist East. The difference was that, in the East official policy banned Western rock. Of course, that dour, grey apparatchiks outlawed it made it even more desirable. That the West produced both rock music and coveted blue jeans showed the younger generation behind the Iron Curtain that they did not live in a worker’s paradise—that their system was a grand lie.
Getting music behind the Iron Curtain wasn’t easy, but it was, in a sense, far easier than other forms of superpower competition, such as placing spies or building nuclear weapons. This was because the people behind the Iron Curtain wanted Western music. They craved it sounds, its attitude. It reeked of freedom. And, they would do anything to get it.
Rockin’ the Wall, narrated by Adam Baldwin (Firefly, Chuck, The Last Ship), recounts through first person interviews—a Soviet citizen, an East German, a Bulgarian, a Romanian—the sometimes dangerous struggle people undertook to get their hands on rock music. A fourth generation cassette tape copy was considered the gold standard, though a scratchy tenth-generation recording would do. Listening to the Radio Free Europe broadcast through headphones shared two at a time was common—with the radio immediately switched off, its dial turned back to the official government propaganda station, and put back high on the shelf when an unexpected knock came at the door.
A Hungarian underground rock band drummer who risked his life escaping to Austria through a narrow and miles-long railway tunnel, eventually becoming a well-known music producer in Germany, explained how one day in class the teacher asked who had heard the Beatles on the radio the night before. Four students eagerly raised their hands. Within hours, their parents were picked up by the secret police for the obvious crime of illegally listening to Radio Free Europe.
The preceding vignette well illustrates the importance of this film. At the recounting of the police arrest of the parents of the children who listened to the Beetles, I heard gasps of disbelief coming from a couple of 20-somethings seated behind me in the theater. A quarter-century removed from the Cold War, they had no idea of the stakes involved, nor, if they were even taught of Cold War, did they appreciate that moral equivalence between the opposing systems in East and West is a constant and intractable lie of both the academe and major media.
The 84-minute documentary features band members from the Doors, Quiet Riot, Toto, Vanilla Fudge, and Mother’s Finest, a funk rock band that appeared in East Berlin just as the wall came tumbling down, telling their stories as well.
Marc Leif and historian (and one-time rock drummer) Larry Schweikart wrote the script which was based on a chapter from Schweikart’s book, Seven Events That Made America.Rockin’ the Wall was recognized by the Dove Foundation for family-friendly entertainment.
Schweikart is working on a follow on documentary, Rockin’ the Wall 2, which looks at music’s ongoing role in challenging totalitarian and theocratic regimes around the world.
There will be a free screening of Rockin’ the Wall at the Joe B. Hogsett Theater at theTexas Public Policy Foundation, 901 Congress Ave., Austin, Texas, at 6 PM, Wednesday, November 4 featuring author Larry Schweikart and Glenn “Doc” Murdock of Mother’s Finest.
The Hon. Chuck DeVore is a vice president at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and served in the California legislature from 2004 to 2010.